What does thinking really look like in a classroom? Systems thinking is a set of concepts, tools and habits that promote thinking. Evidence of systems thinking may suggest a movement toward classrooms where students are actually engaged in thinking.
Use of the visual tools, such as behavior-over-time graphs or causal loop diagrams, is easy to observe. It can be an artifact from a lesson or a piece of student work. But there are other indicators that a classroom of learners is actively applying systems thinking that may not be so easily observed. There are certain mental models that are highly compatible with a systems thinking classroom. These mental models translate into specific behaviors such as regularly making connections between current learning and life events. A strong value is placed on learners who are engaged and able to direct their own learning.
Classrooms with more student talk than teacher talk may suggest that thinking is becoming prevalent in the classroom culture. There will be more student voice in a classroom where students take responsibility for their own learning and are encouraged to offer their ideas and suggestions to make learning more meaningful. These classrooms have structures to help students connect their learning to the real world, to personalize their learning and to solve real problems. Subjects are addressed in interdisciplinary ways that help learners make connections.
Subtle changes in language may reveal a growing value on thinking. A newsletter hanging outside a second grade classroom door offers parents the “big picture” of the week, in a section entitled Academic News. The big picture encourages readers of the newsletter to take into account the sum total of what is to be learned and how to help students make connections between the discreet pieces of knowledge.
The same newsletter explains that the weekly reading objectives are to show the order of events in a story and explain what makes a character interesting. Taken directly from the Common Core State Standards, these two objectives, sequence of events and understanding the dynamics of a character, are skills that lend themselves very naturally to a behavior-over-time graph (BOTG). As systems thinking becomes part of the culture of a school, these curriculum connections to thinking will become increasingly apparent to teachers, students and parents.
In some schools that incorporate systems thinking approaches to teaching and learning, students are provided strategies for goal setting and self-assessment, including the use of BOTGs. The strategies help students focus on small chunks of measurable achievement that all students can accomplish given flexible time periods and needed support.
Systems thinking enhances a collaborative culture. Common tools and language facilitate cooperative problem solving. In systems thinking environments, all members are learners and the voice of the learner is valued.